How to Survive Your First TV Writing Job


Margaret Dunlap speaks of her real life experiences in a writers room.

Congratulations!  The new network shows are staffed up for the season, and you’ve landed your first job in a TV writers’ office.  If you’re the PA, that’s great!  Maybe you’ve leapt in a little higher up, as the writers’ assistant or script coordinator.  Fantastic! Or maybe, just maybe, you caught the brass ring, and your first time stepping into a writers’ room will be as a newly-minted staff writer.  How cool is that?!

Especially if this is something you’ve been working towards for a while, I’m guessing your emotions are bouncing wildly between “really excited!” and “ready to vomit!”  But take a deep breath.  Most TV writers are cool, smart, literate people who really want newcomers to succeed.  If you work hard, with a good attitude, and keep your wits about you, you should do fine.  Still worried?  Here are four simple rules for being a writers’ office rock star:

1. ASK QUESTIONS

Yes, it’s awkward and embarrassing when you think you’re the only person who doesn’t know what o/c on a callsheet means.[1]  But the good news is that because this is your first show, you have a good excuse for not knowing.  Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can. You might feel like an idiot asking a bunch of questions now, but think how much more awkward it will be to be asking these questions on your second job.[2]

[1]P.S.  O/C on a callsheet translates roughly to “own call” which means the person so designated is in charge of knowing when they need to be at work.  Since you’re in the writing department, it’s probably beside your name.  One question down already.

[2]You might also learn that you’re not the only person who doesn’t know the answer. When I asked what o/c meant as I read the callsheet on my first show, it took about three people before we found someone who knew.

2. IGNORE THE HIERARCHY AT YOUR PERIL

On some shows, the hierarchy in the writers’ room is so obvious and rigid you couldn’t pretend not to be at the bottom of the ladder if you tried.  But even on a show where you’re comfortable swapping dirty jokes with the boss, he (or she) is still your boss.  Relax and have fun, but when they ask for something, get on it.  No matter what your job title, your job is to make your showrunner’s life easier.  Never forget that.

3. ON THE FLIP SIDE, DON’T DEFINE PEOPLE BY THEIR JOB TITLE

Or their age, or anything else.  The guy in the catering truck might be an expert on teen girl fixations, thanks to his 14-year-old triplets.  Go ahead and ask him what fad the main character’s sister would be obsessed with, and give him credit to your bosses when they ask how you got that amazing detail.  Get to know everyone, no matter what their department, their seniority, or how likely you think they are to be able to get you a job in the future.  Every person in every department has a stake in making the show as good as possible; it’s how you all stay employed.  Don’t act like you’re not on the same team.

This rule could also boil down to: don’t be a dick.

4. APPRECIATE WHAT YOU’VE ACCOMPLISHED, BUT KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD AHEAD.

I hope this job is a wonderful experience for you; that you’ve landed on a show full of kind and generous people who want you to succeed and who believe in going home at a reasonable hour.  But even if your bosses seem bent on crushing your soul until four in the morning: congratulations.  Whether landing this opportunity took you five years or five minutes, you’re here.

Good or bad, with any luck, this job will be the first of many.  May you be as excited to start your fortieth job as your first.

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